Mojave/The Diviners | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Mojave/The Diviners 

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MOJAVE

Acme Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

THE DIVINERS

Folio Theatre Company

at Cafe Voltaire

Sometimes it seems the American west is the only place where men can be poetic but still manly. The soul of the west is definitely a masculine soul--harsh and raw, as big as the desert and silent as the snow. And even though the western states have changed drastically since the 1800s, "the west" never changes. It's more a state of mind than a physical place.

Take the reality of the west and butt it up against the dream, as Bradley Rand Smith does in his play Mojave, and the results are despairing and poetic. The west is cruel to men, yet in Mojave they go on loving it with a lonesome cowboy yearning. The twist is that men now long to be brave cowboys in a world that no longer requires traditional cowboy survival skills.

In the old days the west's cruel adversaries were disease, warring Indians, and locusts. These were adversaries a man could battle, and when he won, he was a better man for the struggle. But in Mojave, which explores the post-Vietnam west, the Aztec City of Gold--Mexico City--is choking in a cloud of car exhaust, John Deere tractors cost $500,000, and babies born near toxic dumping grounds have no heads. In Mojave modern society is the adversary, and it's trying its damnedest to emasculate these men.

The play is a series of vignettes adroitly performed by an ensemble of eight men: Daniel J. Cunningham, Bill Drew, Darren Kennedy, Juan Luco, Marc Muehleip, F. David Roth, Jim Winfrey, and Tim Kivel. It's an intimate play that fills the cozy basement theater at Cafe Voltaire and, with a few songs and the power of imagination, transforms it into a rodeo, an unemployment line, or the VA hospital.

The sense of place in this Acme Theatre Company production could have been stronger at times. Directors Kivel and Kert Hoogstraat capture the soul of the west--they just need to put it down on some street corner. But the play is really about the men who live in and define the west. When we think of the old west, we think of its being explored, won, built. But in Mojave the men don't work--that ennobling kind of work has been taken away by insidious forces that can't be battled: corporate farms, the Vietnam war, toxic contamination.

In response they drink, fight, and tell stories. Some are exaggerated, and others are straightforward tales of despair: about the Vietnam vets trapped in the VA hospital who want only to go back to work on the ranch, about a Mexican man whose child was born deformed, about a farmer who lost his land and can't even get a job tending tractors on a corporate farm. But although these men have lost parts of their masculine identities, they still possess their pride. In their minds they're still roughriders, untamed and uncontrolled by any woman or any thing.

This spirit is epitomized in the stories told about Old Mayhew, which run like a thread throughout the play. Old Mayhew flies planes, spraying a "glorious silver cloud" on the fields below him. He's a direct descendant of Lewis and Clark, Sacajawea, Annie Oakley, Illinois Bob Moody, and Florence Peabody, who ran the whorehouse down in Los Alamos where Oppenheimer was a frequent customer. No one can fly like Old Mayhew, and nothing can hold him down.

In the end Mayhew finds he's contracted cancer from those silver clouds of insecticide he's been spraying. His response is to get in his plane and fly up for the last time. Everybody's watching him, amazed as he swoops and soars. Even when the plane runs out of gas he stays up there for two hours before making a perfect landing. That's the new spirit of the west despite all the obstacles, says Smith in Mojave, and Kivel and Hoogstraat's ensemble captures it beautifully.

Jim Leonard Jr. in The Diviners takes the old plot contrivance of a stranger in a small town and builds an unexpectedly mystical and powerful story. C.C. Showers (Jamie Denton), an ex-preacher who's sworn off preaching with the conviction of a reformed alcoholic, comes to Zion, Indiana, during the time of the Hoover administration looking for work, and finds it fixing cars in Ferris's garage. Ferris (Paul Anderson) has a disturbed son Buddy (Matthew Smith) who is sort of an idiot savant when it comes to water. He can predict rain when the sky's bright blue and locate underground springs with a divining rod. But he cannot and will not immerse himself in water, not even to wash.

The Diviners is firmly rooted in the soil of the midwest. The characters have an intimacy with nature, a sort of skinless vulnerability that they carry over into their relationships with each other. In their easy midwestern way, they integrate C.C. Showers into their community, with the hope that he'll become a preacher again and save them all. C.C., with the spirit of a preacher-turned-psychologist, enmeshes himself in Buddy's quirky world and tries to cure his paranoia about water. But the balance of nature and lives is precarious in this small town. When a stranger enters, the scales tip and someone is bound to fall off. Director Alec Wild beautifully captures the mystical power of water in this play, and he's assembled an all-around strong cast as intimate with their audience as they are with each other.

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